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Witnessing Childhood Bullying Changed the Way I Parent

Decades after I was a silent bystander to bullying, I couldn't let my son make the same mistake

“Oh, no. I’m stuck,” I heard a classmate whisper under his breath as he struggled to free the lower half of his body from the one-piece chair/desk that had him trapped. The furniture looked like a dollhouse accessory in proportion to his frame. He pulled and pulled, but each desperate wiggle only brought more attention — and, from the surrounding kids, laughter — to his plight. I'd watched this kid get tormented for years because of his appearance. They called him “golly gross giant” and “blubber butt" and often pantsed him, yanking his loose trousers to his knees.

Then on one glorious, vengeful morning, he showed up at school wearing brand-new overalls. “Try to pants me now,” he said proudly. But as fate would have it, one of his overall straps popped under the pressure. A loud clang rippled through the onlookers when the metal clasp hit the corner of his seat. Laughter devolved into hateful taunts: "Maybe you should lose weight, fatty." "You’re such a blimp, they’ll have to use a chainsaw to set you free."

I remember standing silently by the blackboard, my heart breaking into a million little pieces for this boy. Yet I did nothing. I waited — confused and anxious — for help to come.

I don’t know if it was the emotions running high that day or the embarrassment or if the kid had finally just had enough. But he tore off his overalls, picked up the desk, and with rage in his eyes smashed it into the floor until only fragments were left. When he was escorted from the classroom that afternoon in his T-shirt and underwear, it was the last we saw of him. But the impact of that bullying never left my mind.

More: Here's What Your Kids Are Really Learning About Bullying in School

When my oldest was 7 or 8 years old, he came home from school one day in a melancholy mood. Normally, he's a chatterbox, giving me the rundown of his day as if he's acting out a Shakespeare play. On this day, however, there were no smiles or animated scenes; he immediately retreated to his bedroom.

“Honey, is something wrong?” I asked, peeking around the edge of his door.

“I don’t know.” His face was hidden in a pillow, but I could hear his stifled sobs.

I put my hand on his shoulder. “You can tell me anything,” I urged.

After a few seconds, he turned and looked at me. “One of the older kids teased Jack,” he confessed. “They called him a weirdo.” 

More: How to Stop Your Kid From Being the Bully

Jack was my son’s best friend — a tall, freckled redhead known for his quirky knock-knock jokes. Our families had moved to town the same year, and the moment the boys met, they became inseparable. I was furious to hear that Jack had become the target of bullying — but I knew I had to be patient and help my son navigate his own feelings.

“Are you upset because they teased him?” I asked.

He wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve (before I could protest) and said, “No. I’m upset because I didn’t do anything to help him.” 

His words cut through my heart. I thought of my classmate from so many years ago — and the look of anguish on his face. I had failed that boy, and in this moment I realized I had failed my son too.

My son and I had often talked about the importance of being kind to others and what to do if someone wasn’t nice to you. But I hadn’t prepared him for this day — a day when he could have made a difference. When my classmate was bullied, I had stood quietly on the sidelines. When I was a kid, I was never given the guidance to do the right thing.

More: My Teen Won't Use a Smartphone — Will He Still Have a Social Life?

That night, I called Jack’s parents and told them about the incident at school. They were thankful because Jack hadn’t said a word. I also sat down with my son and gave him my explicit permission to intervene in the future. I encouraged him to walk away so the bully loses the audience they crave — or if he feels comfortable, to ask the bully to stop (and encourage others present to do the same). I also told him to never be afraid to tell someone — whether it's me, a teacher or another adult he trusts. And I explained how important it is to support victims of bullying, even after an incident happens.

“I should call Jack and tell him I’m sorry for not doing anything,” my son suggested.

“That’s a great place to start,” I encouraged. Finally, the smiled returned to his face.

Our experiences shape the way we raise our own children, and it took me decades to realize how much that one childhood incident would define how I parent. That boy, wherever he is today, is the foundation from which I’ve learned to teach empathy, acceptance and respect. He's the guiding light I’ve used to approach the complicated issues of prejudice, diversity and equality. And thanks to him, my son will grow up as a helper — not just a bystander.

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